Narendra Modi's national emblem closer to Savarkar's 'narsingh' than 'gau mata'
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will split hairs with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the exact proportion of real versus rogue gau rakshaks. Is it 80:20 or 20:80? That is for the consumption of its cadre in particular and the public in general
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will split hairs with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the exact proportion of real versus rogue gau rakshaks. Is it 80:20 or 20:80? That is for the consumption of its cadre in particular and the public in general.
But the real import of the prime minister's fulminations on the "anti-social" activities of self-proclaimed gau rakshaks will not be lost on the top echelons of the RSS leadership.
Modi knows only too well that the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) — and even a large section of conservatives in the RSS — attaches divine attributes to the bovine and sees cow protection as a religious duty. The VHP has predictably expressed its displeasure and another fringe organisation, the Hindu Mahasabha, has almost called the prime minister a traitor of the Hindutva cause. So, while we can argue about why the prime minister chose to join issue with gau rakshak goons when he did — more than a month after the Una incident — there is no doubt that he chose what he said and where he said it, deliberately and with great care.
First the venue and the occasion. As this Firstpost article pointed out, the prime minister chose the first-ever townhall to trash gau rakshaks as criminals. Townhalls are a western concept where the head of government takes questions directly from citizens. By doing the first prime ministerial townhall, Modi wants to the send a signal that accountability, access and transparency will be the hallmarks of his governance.
Notably, Modi chose this citizens platform to bring up the subject of gau rakshaks — which was creating havoc for his party politically — even though he was not directly asked a question on the subject. This makes two things clear: One, he is now wearing the hat of the administrator-in-chief of the country, not that of a protector-in-chief of his party's interests or its ideology. And, two, that this was a governance issue, not an ideological or religious issue.
In his earlier avatar as an RSS pracharak, Modi might have had to ignore the indiscretions and criminal excesses of cow protectors. But as prime minister, he cannot not ignore the ominous portents it has for the country. Additionally, he will be conscious of the fact that this can be the undoing of his image of being a “moderniser”, which he has so assiduously cultivated in India and abroad, particularly in the US.
That is as far as the obvious messaging is concerned. There is a deeper, hidden message, too, in his calculated outburst against gau rakshaks and that has to do with the two distinctly different strands of thinking within the Sangh parivar on the issue of holding up the cow as the symbol of religious nationalism.
One is the conservative hardcore, the types who wear their love for the cow on their sleeves. In the urbanised areas of western Uttar Pradesh where I live and work, I regularly encounter processions raising the slogan “gau mata ko rashtra mata ghoshit karo (declare the cow the national symbol of motherhood)”. It is possible that wherever you live you, too, must have seen this version of total allegiance to the cow.
It does not matter to them that hundreds of cows roam around the same streets, day in and night out, causing serious danger to the traffic and for themselves. In fact, villages that lie cheek by jowl with these urban settlements, let go of hundreds of aged cows and oxen because they are past their productive phase. Concerns of commerce override religious or national sentiment but cow bhakts hardly ever question that.
In spite of our regular brush with this version of the holy-cow politics, it hardly ever makes a mark on the urban consciousness. Yet, those claiming to be protectors of the cow don't let one opportunity pass to pose for the camera or give out sensational bites to hog the limelight. The question arises why do they do it?
In Ramachandra Guha’s book India after Gandhi, the author describes the RSS’s vision of India by quoting its second chief MS Golwalkar. In Golwalkar’s words, “Mother Cow, the living symbol of Mother Earth — that deserves to be the sole object of devotion and worship. To stop forthwith any onslaught on this particular point of our national honour, and to foster the spirit of devotion to the motherland, a ban on cow-slaughter should find topmost priority in our programme of national renaissance in swaraj.”
Since its inception, the RSS has chosen the cow as a symbol for consolidation of Hindu society across the country. The underlying assumption was that cow is revered across the country and would be a powerful emotive issue to unite the fractured Hindu society.
In those days of communally supercharged politics, it had much greater resonance as opposed to the near total apathy, especially urban, now. In fact the cow-nationalists then had presumed that it had so much impact that in Independent India's first General Election a cow-bhakt sadhu, Prabhudutt Brahmachari, was put up as a candidate against Jawaharlal Nehru. Of course, he was trounced by Nehru, but continued his struggle for cow-protection which culminated in a march to Parliament that resulted in serious clashes between sadhus and the police in 1966.
This brief history of using the cow as a political symbol bears out the fact that the self-proclaimed champions of the cow draw their sustenance largely from the political ideology of Hindutva. They are certainly not random aberrations that have reared their ugly heads all of a sudden. Though the cow protection lobby was always a marginal group in the country’s political discourse, it has the potential of igniting the communal tinderbox. In the pre-independence and the immediate post-independence phases, in large parts of the Hindi belt, protection of cow symbolised the Hindu’s masculinity vis a vis the Muslims.
But there is a second line of thinking on the relevance of the cow. Cow-protection might be the dominant voice, not the only one. Mahatma Gandhi, for example. Gandhiji was all for revering the cow and protecting it, but he put a far greater premium on social amity. He had nothing but contempt for those claiming themselves to be champions of cow-protection and chided them openly for their hypocrisy. He termed cow-protection societies as cow-killing societies.
One can argue that Mahatma Gandhi was never the poster boy of Hindutva nationalists. So let's pick one such, Veer Savarkar, who had and has a cult following among Hindutva nationalists? In a paper published for the South Asia Institute of the Department of Political Science, Heidelberg University (February 2009) titled The demonic and the seductive in religious nationalism: Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and rites of exorcism in secularising South Asia, Ashish Nandy writes about Savarkar thus:
"The sceptics might like to look up Savarkar’s comments on the cow, worshipped as sacred by most Hindus, and compare it with the position of the organisations and parties that constitute the Hindu nationalist formation today. While the latter try to pander to the sentiments of the Hindus, Savarkar publicly supported cow slaughter when necessary and declared the cow to be a useless animal with no sacredness about it..."
Ashish Nandy hits the nail on the head. Savarkar was never confused about the inadequacy of the cow as the national emblem. Savarkar, who propounded Narsingh (mythical human-lion), as the national emblem fit for a strong nation, was rather dismissive of the cow. Here are his exact words: "A national emblem should evoke the nation’s exemplary valour, brilliance, aspirations and make its people super humans! The cow, exploited and eaten at will, is an appropriate symbol of our present-day weakness. But at least the Hindu nation of tomorrow should not have such a pitiable symbol." (1936,Ksha Kirane or X Rays, Samagra Savarkar Vangmaya, Vol. 3, p.237)
That brings us back to Modi's subtle message for the public in general and the parivar in particular. Modi is a self-confessed disciple of Savarkar and shares the late leader's vision about "valour, brilliance, aspirations" to make India a super power. That also fits the brand he has tried to build for himself as an administrator since the time he took political power in 2001. The visual imagery of the India that he wants to build corresponds more with Savarkar's Narsingh than the gau mata. While he might personally revere the cow, that is hardly the emblematic representation of the India that he aspires to build or the one that will resonate with the millennials who are his ardent support base.
Will this shift in emphasis fall foul of the RSS leadership? Unlikely, because even within the RSS, the realisation that cow protection has acquired anti-Dalit features has caused serious concern. It runs counter to their goal of Hindu consolidation. The statement from RSS, supporting Modi on his remarks about cow vigilantism, revealed as much. Perhaps the time has come to jettison the archaic symbols of political mobilisation that are completely irrelevant to 21st Century India.
That is the significance of Modi's outburst against cow-criminals.
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